THE POWER OF THE DOG
Because I'll have so many complimentary things to say about Jane Campion's and Netflix's new slow-boil Western The Power of the Dog, I may as well get my one major irritation out of the way: Is Benedict Cumberbatch the only living Brit who can't pull off an American accent? Like, any American accent?
Lord knows he's tried. Cumberbatch has played a Massachusetts native in Black Mass, an Oklahoman in August: Osage County, a New Yorker in the Avengers flicks … . Yet no matter the region, the English actor's dialect-based strain is evident. His oddly elongated vowels sound as though Cumberbatch never fully decided whether to speak his lines or yawn them, and you can generally sense a vague panic in his expressions, as though he were silently asking us, “Am I getting away with this?” When I heard that writer/director Campion – the wondrous New Zealander who won a screenwriting Oscar for her 1993 masterpiece The Piano – was releasing her first feature film in 12 years with The Power of the Dog, I was beyond thrilled. When I learned that her lead was Benedict Cumberbatch, and that he was playing a cattle rancher in 1925 Montana, I think I may have audibly groaned.
Yet it turns out that, as genius directors usually are, Campion was way ahead of me. Cumberbatch does indeed sound (Doctor) strange in the movie, and it takes a couple of scenes for you to not want to giggle at the man, on horseback, doing his damnedest to sound gruffly 'Mur-ican in a Stetson, chaps, and boots with spurs. Campion, however, employs her star's apparent miscasting with devilish wit and skill. While Cumberbatch's cruel, angry Phil Burbank may think he's getting away with his half-laconic/half-loquacious cowboy act – and Phil's subordinates certainly view him as the ultimate man's man – Campion and her ferally charged performer make it slowly, unmistakably clear that it is an act, and one that's not fooling everyone. You may initially feel that Cumberbatch is out of his element here, and he is. But so is Phil, and The Power of the Dog's hypnotic allure and escalating intensity come from waiting to see what will happen, and to whom, once the cowpoke's true nature is revealed to others – or, perhaps more dangerously, to himself.
Like most of the finest Westerns, Campion's boasts a simple yet sensationally elastic narrative, one that finds the lives of wealthy rancher brothers Phil and George (Jesse Plemons) upended by their encounter with boarding-house proprietor Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a charming, hardworking widow with a fey, gangly teenage son named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Not long after meeting her, George marries Rose, and she moves into the Burbanks' rambling mansion. On a summertime break from school, Peter joins them. And as he's convinced that they're secretly schemers with eyes on the family fortune – to say nothing of equally feminine threats to the brothers' masculine paradise on the range – Phil goes about attempting to destroy the presumed interlopers, making Rose fear for her sanity (and sobriety) and Peter fear for his life.
Yet who, in The Power of the Dog, is really afraid, and why? Rose is, to be sure, and Dunst produces some of her most delicately heart-wrenching screen work to date; long before she begins fading into alcohol-induced despair, Rose's victimization at the piano while Phil mocks her with his banjo is one of the film year's most emotionally shattering sequences. With Phil hatefully replicating the boy's effeminate bearing and lisp, Peter has definite reason to expect a fate not unlike the one Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist met in Brokeback Mountain. (For a large chunk of the movie, George effectively disappears, and the beautifully understated Plemons is so perfect in the role that you likely won't want him to.)
We incrementally understand, however, that it's Phil who might be the most frightened of all. Terrorizing Rose, shaming Peter, talking incessantly, to the delight of Phil's ranch hands, about his close friendship with cowboy hero Bronco Henry … . The pieces of Campion's intricately wrought Western puzzle (with her screenplay adapted from Thomas Savage's 1967 novel) gradually fall into place. And when, in a move that feels simultaneously unanticipated and inevitable, Phil begins to take Peter under his wing to “make a man” out of him – further means, you think, of tormenting both the widow and her child – the connection between middle-aged rancher and teen apprentice becomes almost mythically charged, and devastatingly uneasy. As opposed to Phil, the person who's the most genuinely scared during Campion's masterful feature-film return, you discover, may actually be you.
Despite the exquisite production design, cinematographer Ari Wegner's alternately stark and lush photography, Jonny Greenwood's disarmingly sinister score, and all of its tremendous acting (with additional small roles here for Thomasin McKenzie and Frances Conroy), the unsettling, enigmatic The Power of the Dog isn't the easiest film to like. But after two viewings so far, I think I might love it, blown away as I am by Campion's brilliantly rendered power dynamics, the Greek-tragedy elegance of her storytelling, the electrifying watchfulness of Kodi Smit-McPhee, and the movie's subdued knockout of a finale – one that, as tough a sit as this picture can be, made me want to immediately revisit the experience in its entirety. Even Cumberbatch's American accent, on a second go-around, wasn't a liability. I guess miracles won't ever cease. And as movie miracles go, Campion's Western is one of them.
In writer/director Mike Mills' black-and-white dramedy C'mon C'mon (now playing at Iowa City's FilmScene), the presently 12-year-old British actor Woody Norman plays the movie's nine-year-old Los Angeles tyke Jesse, and folks, this kid is a wonder. Forget, for a moment, the unimaginable amount of talent and technique it must take for an English grade-schooler to reproduce an absolutely flawless American accent. (Benedict Cumberbatch has more than three decades on Woody and still can't do it.) But everything about Norman's portrayal is magical. Much of his work here seems utterly spontaneous as Jesse races around and natters on and tugs at his screen uncle's sleeve; if Norman's pre-teen résumé didn't already boast more movie and TV credits than Lady Gaga's, you could easily think that Mills just got insanely lucky with an untrained Californian and directed him to the hilt. But Norman is just as effective, and wholly convincing, in his clearly scripted, more emotional bits, and more than holds his own against the film's Oscar-winning lead. He's truly astonishing.
But would you believe that this floppy-haired cutie with the huge eyes and glorious naturalism is, in truth, only C'mon C'mon's second-most adorable performer? And that the prize would instead go to his considerable elder Joaquin Phoenix? No? Yeah, me neither. And yet, here we are.
It would be hard to argue that Phoenix has gone soft in Mills' third feature, the tale of a dedicated documentarian who becomes a weeks-long guardian to the son of his estranged sister (Gaby Hoffman). Sure, the actor does a lot more hugging here we're accustomed to, and his radio journalist Johnny wells up when, as a bedtime story, he reads from Claire A. Nivola's children's book Star Child. (To be fair, I welled up, too.) But Phoenix, who still gets to drop a fair number of “F” bombs here, isn't endearing because Johnny is a sap. It's because Johnny is all but physically bursting with love: for the sibling he stopped speaking with after the death of their mother; for the long-term romantic partner who ended their relationship; for the many interview subjects in L.A., New York, Detroit, and New Orleans that Johnny and his team interview for their documentary project on the fears and dreams of today's youth. (I hereby demand a sequel in which we get to hear the full fruits of their recorded labor, as the kids' improvised responses are thoroughly engaging and affecting.)
Mostly, we feel Johnny's deep love for Jesse, and it's a love that takes both of them by surprise. Long separated from the nephew who barely remembers him, Johnny begins to experience a makeshift parental bond with the kid – adoring him one minute, annoyed and frustrated with him the next, and slowly realizing that it's okay if those feelings are inseparable. As for Jesse, whose own father (Scoot McNairy) is in the midst of a bipolar crisis, he perhaps stopped thinking of an adult male as someone to look up to. But he finds a hero, playmate, disciplinarian, and kindred spirit in Johnny, and the understandable fit he throws when demanding to be reunited with his mom is eventually matched by the understandable fit he throws at the prospect of having to return to her.
Phoenix and Norman play off one another with so much honesty and warmth that the movie's numerous other virtues – Hoffman's down-to-earth radiance and weathered exhaustion; the crystalline beauty of cinematographer Robbie Ryan's images; the litany of gorgeous literary passages read from and credited on-screen – almost seem like afterthoughts. They're absolutely not. Yet when I think back on C'mon C'mon, I'll be hard-pressed, at least at first, to recall anything other than the enchanting camaraderie of its leads, whether they're attempting to answer life's big questions, enduring the fallout of a recent argument, or merely stepping out for pizza. Though he's well on his way with credits including Beginners, 20th Century Women, and this superlative entertainment, Mike Mills isn't yet Richard Linklater. But if, à la Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series, he wants to check in on Johnny and Jesse – and Phoenix and Norman – every nine years just to see what they're up to, I'll be gratefully along for the ride.
Unless it's Venom, Riz Ahmed has a habit of making everything he appears in significantly better than it likely would've been otherwise, and this stunningly protean actor brings his “A” game to writer/director Michael Pearce's Encounter, an initially evocative sci-fi thriller that morphs into a completely different, sadly less satisfying type of thriller.
Through a prelude that's craftily reminiscent of the opening minutes of Philip Kaufman's superb Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1978, we learn that a meteor has crash-landed on Earth; that barely visible, airborne space spores have taken control of the insect population; and that the insects, after biting their human prey, are systematically turning us all into Pod People. At least, that's the premise that Ahmed's former Marine Malik Khan is working from, and as he whisks his estranged children (Lucien-River Chauhan's Jay and Aditya Geddada's Bobby) away from their presumably infected mother, Encounter veers away from Body Snatchers territory and instead suggests a Thelma & Louise-style road trip, albeit with far fewer laughs, no Grand Canyon, and Octavia Spencer as Harvey Keitel.
The sci-fi thriller stuff is all pretty great. Pearce, who shares screenwriting credit with Joe Barton, has a lot of fun with the interplanetary takeover's early warning signs and the watery, spore-laden eyes of the purported alien hosts, and delivers a few horrifying jolts made only slightly less horrifying by their eventual reveals as dream sequences. But when the big narrative twist lands before the film even hits its halfway point, what started as a tart, nasty little genre excursion tries reaching for larger, more meaningful effects than it can reasonably sustain. And the scenes with Spencer's parole office and the FBI agent on Khan's tail (a wonderfully world-weary Rory Cochrane) are poorly written and staged; it's as though Ridley Scott's Alien were infiltrated, suddenly and without warning, by a series of PSAs about PTSD.
Yet Encounter – which is currently at the cineplex in advance of its December 10 debut on Amazon Prime – is still worth a look for the ravaged intensity and soulful suffering of Ahmed, and maybe especially for the phenomenally present and winning Chauhan and Geddada, who handle their dramatic duties with the same aplomb they bring to their unexpected laugh lines. (Asked by their heavy-metal-loving father what their favorite music is, Jay cites K-pop, while younger brother Bobby's answer is more specific: “Barbra Streisand.”) What's with the insurgence of ridiculously gifted child actors these days? Pair Chauhan and Geddada with C'mon C'mon's Woody Norman, and I'd even happily sit through a remake of The Goonies.